How to Create, Sell, and Protect your Innovated Products - StepNpull | EP. #36
On this 36th episode of The E-Comm Show, our host and BlueTuskr CEO Andrew Maff is with Mike Sewell of StepNpull, a B2B company selling foot-operated door pull mounts on commercial wood and metal doors. Prior to the pandemic, StepNpull has already been changing the game in terms of convenience and health and safety.
As Oprah said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” and this is exactly how StepNpull was catapulted to the limelight during the COVID-19 pandemic. From innovating functional and very timely products for commercial businesses to going on SharkTank, this episode is sure to help entrepreneurs learn about how to innovate new products, expand distribution channels, and pitch your way to SharkTank.
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How to Create, Sell, and Protect your Innovated Products
Andrew Maff and Michael L Sewell
Michael L Sewell
Mike Sewell is the president of KRM Innovations, Inc. and co-inventor of the StepNpull foot-operated door opener. In 2020, Mike retired from a 30-year career at Verizon Wireless to focus exclusively on leading StepNpull through the next phase of its brand evolution. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike has led the company through its exponential growth and international recognition as businesses look for ways to minimize the spread of germs. Mike’s focus has thus shifted from day-to-day business operations to long-term initiatives such as recruiting key talent, expanding StepNpull’s product line, and implementing new processes.
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Welcome to The E-Comm Show, presented by BlueTuskr, the number one place to hear the inside scoop from other e-commerce experts. They share their secrets about how they scaled their business and are now living the dream. Now, here's your host, Andrew Maff. Hello,
everyone, and welcome to another episode of The E-Comm Show. I'm your host, Andrew Maff and today I'm here with Mike Sewell of stepping pole. Mike, how are you doing today? Ready for a good show. I am thanks for having me on. Not a problem. Super excited to have you on the show. Obviously, we love having people that have been on Shark Tank before because it's always a very interesting story. But the one thing I'm looking forward to discussing with you is we don't get too many b2b products that we get to chat about. So super excited to kind of get into that. But let's kick this off. I'd love to give you a minute here and kind of tell everyone a little bit about your background about stepping pull and we'll start from there. Okay.
Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, my name is Mike Zul lived, I've lived in Missouri most of my life. And I worked for a large wireless company for about 30 years. And the idea for the stepping pole came about while I was working at the wireless company, part of my responsibility was taking care of the building. There are the facilities and I had a couple of buddies that I work with there. And, you know, as I took care of the office and noticed in the restrooms, that a lot of people would use a paper towel to open the door to exit and, and sometimes so those paper towels on the floor, which made a mess and kind of irritated me but you know, though, hey, there has to be a better way to solve this, this whole issue of people avoiding, you know, touching the handle. And so I just went to, my two friends that I worked with and said, Hey, I've got this idea. Why don't we try to figure out a way to open the door with your foot and kind of went from there. So
it's one of those things where it's like, wow, Why did no one think of this before? Like it very loves the idea love the concept behind it. And you came out with this? I believe it was before COVID Correct?
Yeah, that's correct. Yeah, we started so my two business partners Ron Eli, and Kelly Coddington. So three we make up KR M innovations Incorporated, which our main product is Stefan pull. But yeah, we invented it in 2007. And actually, I had the original idea of opening the door with a foot, you know, I brought that to our little group. But then Kelly is the one that really came up with the idea of stepping down and pulling the door open. We were trying multiple different ways and ultimately landed, on what you see today as our product. And then that is step down and pull it just, it made the most. After we designed it, it made the most sense and work the best. So that's what
so how we're sales prior to COVID. And then how are they reflected during that time? Because this obviously, is a great product for what you know, 2020 and on now so was it just kind of like, semi-decent and then just skyrocket in 2020?
Yeah, you know, it was a side business. It really was and started off slow, I think the first year and we invented Stefan Poland 2007, but really started selling in 2008. And I think the first year we sold 750 units, which isn't too bad for me as a brand new concept. If you think about it, I mean, open doors with a handle forever. I think some stores were invented. They don't I don't think there's ever a time in history, people use their feet to open the door. So a new concept, a new paradigm shift that we had to try to break or make happen. So you know, we just started in 2008. And then year over year for the next four or five years, we sold probably 12 or 1300 units a year. And then we started to you know, we hung in there though because it was paying for itself and we would get an article here and there and we were on a couple of different TV programs to talk about it. So you know, we were excited sales just weren't taking off and then I don't know in like 2013 to 2019. We saw this continual just increase year over year anywhere from 20 or 30%. Year over year to 95% year over year. So we finished out 2019. And I think I would we'd sold I think 13,000 units that year, I think as well. So you know, it went from 750, the first year to, you know, what, 13 years later, 12 years later to around 13,000 units in a year. So pretty good, you know, just took a long time to get there.
And how and you said that was in 2019 2019? Yeah. So how did you end up doing once kind of COVID kicked in, and everyone started looking for new options?
Well, yeah, that was crazy. Because, you know, it started off in 2020 for all of us. Probably started out like any other year, right, and New Year's resolutions and all that stuff. And who knew COVID was on the way. And we noticed an uptick in traffic, the end of February, a nice bump, and we're like, Oh, my goodness, you know, because we, we've been around when the h1 in one virus had been here. And we saw that, and that was nothing like COVID, of course, but, you know, we expected with COVID, there would be an increase in sales. And so we saw that nice bump at the end of February like, wow, this is great, you know, not because we have COVID. And let me be clear, but because we have a product to help with it, and it definitely helped the sales and so but then the first week in March, it just, it was insane. It just, we were seeing 50 to 70 times increase in sales, and that's not percent that's ties, so 50 to 70 times and sales. I think I honestly, I don't know the exact number how many we sold? That's probably bad. I mean, I shouldn't I should know that off the top of my head 2020. What do we sell? You know, I think, three or 400,000 units. I'd say at least, if not more. So yeah.
So b2b product, not as easy to market as it would be for your traditional, you know, b2c focused? How is it you were able to, obviously, prior to COVID, when people are actively searching for this? How is it you are able to educate the market and start to find these customers that started purchasing your product?
Yeah, that, as you can imagine, there's a lot to unpack over a 12-year period for all that. But, you know, because we're a low budget business, we started out I think, I built or we built the first two or three websites we had, they were, they were horrible. Looking back, on the brand, we had a different brand up until a brand logo up until 2015. And then we have the current logo that you see now with it's like with the foot there. But we about oh, it was 2016, we brought on an intern, his name's Nick Simmons. And he went to MSU. There in Springfield. And we brought him on to focus on our social media. And he just gave us a real presence online through the years and kept us engaged. We didn't do a lot of ad campaigns on Amazon. In fact, we weren't on Amazon until probably 2017, or 20 2016 2017, something like that. But you know, he just, he, he gave us a presence online. And so that's one aspect. And the other that we because we don't have a marketing team, we don't have a sales team that makes calls to businesses. We've tried, we've tried with different people, we've tried it internally, it's been pretty tough with this product because it is b2b. But also because it is it's just different. It doesn't really fit in the traditional, you know, it's not like trying to sell door handles or hinges or things that people already know about. So really, we attribute most of our growth to our online presence, which is very important. Just the organic effect of having the stepping poles out there to be used, you know, oftentimes, somebody would go in somewhere, they would see this thing on the door, maybe the first time, they didn't know what it was. And they didn't know how it worked. They didn't try it. But then the next time they try like, well, this is pretty cool. And they try it a few times. And they may go back and tell they're the people they work with, they go to the restaurants and say hey, why don't you put all these things on the door. And so that word of mouth was, I think really the most important part of our growth. And so there are obviously a lot of people that knew about stepping pole when COVID hit and 2020 but they had not been convinced yet that they needed it for whatever reason, but COVID was a very good reason for them to purchase to try to help mitigate the spread.
Yeah. And all your sales online or do you have any kind of retail presence and if not, are you going to attempt that route one day?
We're not on shelves anywhere that I'm aware of. Every most almost all of our sales are online, we sell There's been a shift through the years, a little bit, we used to do about 50%, between our website and Amazon, probably 60%. And then 30, or 40% was direct, either, you know, through distributors or directly to the customer, and would order with a purchase order or whatever. That's shipped a little bit more actually Amazon heavy now. And I'd be curious to know if that's, that's got to be a trend in the industry because I think we all say we're all guilty of it. I don't know if that's right. Guilty is probably not the right word. But most of us are Amazon shoppers. And it's so easy just to go to Amazon. And your information is already there. It's clicking, click, you're done. I rarely anymore ever go to a manufacturer's website to buy something. And I think we're seeing that with Stephen's poll as well, where we don't we don't see as many sales on our website anymore. They're almost all through Amazon. And it's a conversation for another time. But that's the mix. So we don't have a retail presence as far as on the show. But we sell through some pretty big distributors. So staples, you can purchase through their website, Lowe's, Home Depot, and Menards. Granger, we sell through Granger. So yeah, I mean, we're very blessed to have a big distribution channel. I think we have probably 240 or 250 distributors that we work with may be close to 300. Yeah, order from us either a little or a lot.
And are you with the increase in Amazon and it's starting to cater to that direction? Are you seeing more and more consumers purchasing it for their households? Or is it you think it's still businesses that are all purchasing this through Amazon?
It's businesses because you know, step and pull are it's not designed for a home door. It's not fun for a door with a latch. It's really four-door that's Lateralus. Rather than restroom doors of course, initially, that's why we invented step and pull but also patio doors at a restaurant, you know if the server's hands are full, and they, you know, they want to go through that patio doorstep. And pull is pretty handy on those doors cleanroom environments, even the front door is like UPS Store, FedEx store, and even some restaurants. like McDonald's identify name drop, but McDonald's purchase corporate a lot from us in 2020. And they put them on a lot of their front entrance doors or the restaurants just in general there to allow people to go into the establishment without touching the handle that everyone else had touched on their way in.
Yeah, I mean, over the past, geez over, I would say past for like four or five years, there has been a massive shift, obviously, over to the Amazon site, a lot of people are starting to cater their websites to the Amazon. In fact, as of this recording, it was earlier, I think it was Monday that Amazon announced that they're adding a buy-on Prime-like button that you can add to your website. So it goes directly to Amazon. So they're obviously doing everything they can to compete with the Shopify's of the world and all that fun stuff. So to see, you know, that shift happening on your end, even as a b2b seller does not shock me it's makes sense Amazon is definitely they're not going anywhere, anytime soon. Let's say that
well, and they even will now have a program similar to what you're you're talking about where you provide a link back to your page, and they will pay you a commission back. So in other words, We've even added a link at the top of our own site. Because we figured, well, if they're an Amazon buyer, they're going to buy on Amazon anyway. So why not just give them an easy path back to the product on the Amazon page, and then we get a commission back on that sale. So it's, uh, you know, you just can hardly be online, at least from my perspective, these days without having some presence on Amazon, you know?
Yeah, that's the the Amazon affiliate program, because about two, I think was about two or three years ago, sellers were doing it all the time. But Amazon would actually suspend accounts because they didn't want people essentially double dipping. And then they changed it to allow, for sellers to bring traffic to Amazon because they realized, like, why wouldn't we let people do this? And so obviously, that's, that's starting to be what's happening there. So with, you know, with your product, the one thing I know about is it's very, it's one of those things like you buy it once you don't need to buy it again. There's no recurring purchasing or anything like that. So how are you? Obviously, it's mostly word of mouth, but are you catering a lot of your marketing to businesses with like franchises or just growing businesses and the smaller ones, they're probably only going to purchase a handful and that'll be it.
Well, yeah, you're right. So it's finite. There are only there are so many doors currently. I mean, there are always new doors being added, but you're right. It's not like they come back in a year or a month or whatever and buy another one. We're not to this. We're not too specific on the industry types necessarily because it is such a broad spread application in any business any brick and mortar that has a restroom door that is a pull door, they have a patio door, they maybe they want to put it on their entrance door, maybe they have a badge reader on a door where they swipe it with a badge, an electronic lock, and then they could use a step and pull for whatever reason. So that's pretty universal. You know, so we haven't really, really targeted to specific industries, you know, because the ad campaigns that we do now, or we do Google and we do on Amazon as well, those are our two main ad campaigns, the thing that continues to encourage us, you know, as many as we've sold, well, over half a million total, there are still so many doors out there that do not have them yet. And we continually get sales and we continually win over businesses. So there's, we feel like I'll still so much opportunity in the marketplace that, you know because I can walk around any city and, you know, maybe 1% or 2% of the doors that could use them have a stepping pole. So I mean, it's just a tremendous opportunity still. And it's proven, you know, we've gone from our goal is always to go from a gadget to a legitimate piece of commercial door hardware, because early on be like, well, that's a gadget you know, that's gimmicky, but I think we're well past that now. Which is a good thing.
Yeah. It's almost I mean, to me, I don't even know why a restaurant wouldn't want it, it seems so straightforward. You get so many people, especially now after COVID that are a little bit more careful around things that they're just touching all the time. How do you gauge the competition? I know you have a patent on the product, like it's, you know, the way it's shaped? Is it your patent on the functionality of the product? Or is it a design patent? Like how are you keeping competition from knocking you off? Or are you
well, yeah, that's a great point. We have a utility patent. It's not a design patent. But you know, and I'm not sure in any company secrets here, anybody that's designed anybody that has worked with patents or any IP knows that it's very difficult to protect your patent. And we had very few competitors. Really no real competitors that had a foot-operated solution prior to 2020. But by mid-summer 2020 It was like fireflies, it was just ridiculous how many knockoffs had come into the market. And we just, you know, it was just really hard to try to do much with that. I think the good news for us is that we were here long before COVID. And the rush that came with that, and we're gonna be here long after. And we have a high-quality product that is made from extruded aluminum, a lot of them as you'd imagine the people who jumped in the water at that time, tried to make the cheapest product they could, which I understand that's business. But most all of the competitors created designs that were made out of stamped metal, some were very flimsy, and some were not bad. But not none were as good in my opinion is as the stepping pole we make out of extruded aluminum, it's a high-quality piece made to last really the life of the door. And so we see now through just on Amazon in general, and the cost for our ad campaigns cost per click is dropped, which is an indicator that a lot of it got really crazy and 2020 we were having to pay a lot just to advertise on our own name, which that's a whole nother thing. I just it. It's amazing to me that legally companies can use your trademark name in their ad campaign to draw people in to buy their product that's more damaging than them just putting your name on their listing because that's how they drive all the traffic to their product. But anyway, so we're seeing your competitors on Amazon in general. As time goes on, I think they they realize it, you know, it just wants to get really expensive for them to advertise because we were hanging right in there we were not gonna back off, we were gonna go ahead and pay what we needed to pay at the time to stay relevant. So So I think through attrition at this point, we saw a rise and we're seeing a bit of a fall now.
Yeah, well, it's good. It's unfortunately part of the game. So how do you how are you expanding the product line? Are you like how are you going to keep the business growth outside of just obviously consistently selling the product?
Yeah, we of course step and pull I think will always be our flagship product. We're looking at a couple of different things. We've got one other product on Amazon right now that we're trying to figure out our path with that but it's in go I look forward it's called toe in. It's just it's a piece of acrylic that goes on the backside of it like a kitchen cabinet door and hangs down A little bit just far enough to get your toe underneath it. And the benefit to that is like if you have a trash bin door, and if you ever cook in the kitchen, you got guacamole or avocados all over your hands, you know, when you are hamburger grease or whatever you're trying to pull that trash bin door open, it's kind of nice to be able to pull it open with your foot and throw the stuff in the trash and if you have that in your kitchen, but we can see it also in commercial applications. Because it is a little easier to pop a door open, especially a lower cabinet if you use your toe to pop it open. And then you know if you got to remote like at the office you got brings a paper you want to put in there, while I'm old school paper who uses paper anymore, but you know, pop that door open, because people will always find that path, the easiest path to do anything, I don't care what it is. And they really do work pretty well. So that's a product we have, we're also looking at maybe instead of trying to invent something, because the door closers, so critical on with a step and pull application, you know, people are always like, well, what if the door is too heavy? Well, that's the first thing that you know, that's not the weight of the door, it doesn't matter how heavy the doors it's about the door, closer resistance, that's what you feel is weight when you pull on a door. And ADA has a requirement of five pounds or less for Interior doors of resistance. And if doors are set to that, then that's a great step and pull works great on those doors. It'll even work if the doors are tighter than that. But that's optimal. So my point with that is we were looking to find a door closer manufacturer that we can endorse or resell their product as a great solution with the step and pull because some door closers can be adjusted some can't. older ones can't because they can be adjusted. But what needs to be adjusted, is there's a spring that can be set. I think it's like one to five is the rating in the industry. But you adjust that string, that spring tension. And not all door closers allow you to do that. So yeah, you know, we've got some other products that we're looking at as well and venting, but we're always talking about different opportunities to try to go into your point.
And have you done anything, obviously since Amazon makes it so easy? Have you done anything to start going outside of selling in the States? Have you used any of that to go international at all?
Oh, outside of the states? Oh, yeah. We, we have relationships, it in multiple countries, they you know, to be fair, they've not had the success we've had in the US. But we have relationships with people in Australia and the UK and South Africa and Mexico and Japan and Hong Kong. You know, we've connected with some different people who distribute for us. So we've been we've listed some stuff and polls in Japan. We haven't had a lot of success with those so far. But on Amazon, we had those on Amazon in Japan. But yeah, to answer your question, we're in Canada as well. How can I forget Canada, we got a great partnership with a company up in Canada, who actually manufactures stuff, and pulse force keeps inventory up there and does order fulfillment right out of Canada to customers. In fact, we have a Canadian website a.ca that people go to in Canada, and then they ordered and it's all self-contained in Canada, Canada made so that's pretty nice.
So the obvious question I have is you're on Shark Tank, you did that whole process what made you decide to go on the show? And then what was that whole experience like for you guys?
Um, so shark tank has a few different ways, they get products on the show. And one of those is they have people who do research and reach out to companies and we happen to be one of the companies they reached out to doesn't mean we were a shoe and we had to go through the whole process any way that they have which I can't go in there's a lot of confidentiality I can't share with you but we they approached us and just, to be honest, and my wife hit me when I said this I said I don't know if I want to be on there or not because we were just crazy busy at the time. I don't I don't really know that I want to do that. You know, do we really need to do that. She just looked at me like what is wrong with you? So anyway, we talked me Ron and Kelly and decided we wanted to pursue that and we were fortunate enough to be chosen as a product to present on the show and the pitch. Unfortunately, Ron and Kelly couldn't, couldn't join us for the filming because of COVID protocol and we just had business to run back home. So I was I was the lucky one that got to go. But it was a great experience. I mean, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about how they produce the show the people I worked with prior leading up to the show, the onstage experience, and you know it's just a top-notch. It's an experience for sure.
Nice. What have you re-aired since your original airing?
Yeah, I don't know how many times I really don't. Yeah. Probably at least two or three times? I would say. It's never known, you know, they're always rewriting those.
And do you consistently like, well, the first episode and then the RE earrings? Did you see a big old spike in sales from that time?
Yeah, it was. Yeah, it was substantial. It was, of course, nothing like what COVID had done for us because, by the time Shark Tank aired, that was the next year. So it was aired in 2021. And we filmed it in 2020. And, but yeah, I mean, and I know the two times the one re-aired, and we knew about when it re-aired a second time, and we did see an increase in sales again. Obviously, the first time we aired, we had the probably for three or four weeks, we had a substantial increase in sales for that period of time, and then they tailed off. And it seems like our website traffic has stayed a little higher. You know, since we were on the show, but yeah, so it's
on the SEO from the Shark Tank bloggers, I assume.
Right? Right. Yeah, for sure. And I highly recommend it. If anybody gets a chance to go on there. It's pretty cool. So once in a lifetime deal never dreamed of in 2007 When we were literally whittling these things not willing. But we were making the step in a garage on a chop saw ourselves, and never dreamed that it would turn into what it wanted to be done.
Yeah. So what's between you and your partners? What's the end goal to one day sell it? Are you hoping to hand it down to someone or just one day? Dissolve it? Like what? What's the end goal for you? Because it's always a very interesting question because some people don't even think that far ahead.
Sure. You know, for now, we're happy to run the business and draw a salary off of it. And, you know, look for additional opportunities to continue to grow it or at least maintain what we have. Yeah, you know, somebody came along to buy it, that's not out of the question. I don't know what we would get out of it, what we would want to walk away from it, because it's our baby. So, you know, our number probably wouldn't match up with what somebody else's number would be. So for that reason, I don't think we would end up selling it. But yeah, I mean, for the right price, you know, it could be sold,
you'd mentioned, obviously, so step impose a DBA of K RM innovations. Correct. So is it between you and your partners? Are there multiple products outside of the stepping pool that you essentially have multiple brands for? Or what's the whole kind of structure for that company?
No, that's it. I mean, K RM innovations is what we started in 2007, to start promoting marketing, manufacturing stuff, and pulse. So that's, again, that's the flagship. That's, that's the one, the one product that we brought all the way from 2007. Until now,
nice. What is your personal motivation for like continuing, you know, this process? And you know, getting up every day and working on stepping pole and keep going, I always find that that answer is always very different for almost everyone I've asked it for. So it's always a very interesting concept that I'm interested in what your thoughts are behind that?
Well, you know, there's, there's a lot of I'm not a prideful person, but there's a lot of you know, I'm proud of stepping pole, I'm, in my two partners, Ron and Kelly would say the same thing. And I mentioned a few times that we've been blessed to be involved with this product really just, you know, there's a little bit of luck. There's a lot of hard work that went into it. But it's really nice to have the freedom to you know, there's been an entrepreneur's The hardest thing that you can ever do in the business world. There are other things outside of life besides business, but you know, whereas if you work in a, like a corporate setting, they already have everything figured out, you just plug in and you do your part, little or big, whatever that part is, when you're an entrepreneur, though, it's just, it's wide open. So you get to make that choice. And as exciting as that is, that's also daunting, but it's challenging, and that's what I like, I like the pride factor of having a product that we invented ourselves and has done what it has done but then also the promise of the future and what else is around the corner, you know, who knows, so we'll just keep hammering away every day.
Nice. Like, super appreciative. Thank you so much for me. be on the show. I'd love to give you another minute here and just let everyone know where they can find out more about yourself and your doorstep and pull
you absolutely well. The best place is to go to our website and that's a step in pull.com stpnpul.com and we have a lot of information not only purchasing but we have some blogs on there and about us and we also have you can like a follow us on Facebook and Twitter so I invite you to do that as well.
Perfect Mike really appreciates having you on the show everyone who tuned in obviously thank you so much as well. please make sure you head over to any podcast platform that you prefer to rate review, subscribe to, or all that fun stuff on YouTube or on ecommshow.com. But as usual, thank you all for joining us and we'll see you all next time. Have a good one.
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